The opening of the Cecil Williams Civil Rights Museum is the culmination of decades of work.
Famed photographer and architect Cecil Williams had what he described as a “soft opening” of the museum housed in Williams’ former home in Northwood Estates. The mere existence of the museum is something Williams said was well worth the effort.
“This place was designed out of that overcoming racism,” he said. Williams built the building 36 years ago, making even the physical structure of the museum a part of the civil rights movement he documented through his lens.
“I think it’s fitting that this history be here because this is like being triumphant against racism because I wanted to go to Clemson to study architecture and get my degree,” Williams said.
“I couldn’t even get the application. Time you send in the request for the application, if you had on there that you graduated from Wilkinson High School, that was it,” Williams said.
Williams said he taught himself architecture. Later Williams would become one of three African-Americans on the Clemson campus of Clemson University.
Williams recalled being one of nearly 300 journalists on hand to cover Harvey Gantt becoming the university’s first African-American student.
Williams’ firsthand account of so many significant moments during the civil rights movement and his vast collection of photos are very prominent and evident as soon as one enters the museum.
All of the exhibits are centered on telling what Williams described as the lesser-known role of South Carolina’s involvement in the movement and the major events that occurred throughout the state.
The first room in the museum is named after the court case that is credited with sparking the movement, Briggs vs. Elliot.
The exhibit features several photos and artifacts that chronicle the case that began in Summerton.
Over 500 photos and artifacts tell the story of events such as the Orangeburg Massacre, Charleston Hospital workers' strike, Briggs vs. Elliot, the Harvey Gantt case, the Fred Moore case, and the history of Septima Clark.
Williams also has a display board that features the names of prominent figures during the movement. Currently, there are over 100 names on the board, with room for more.
“Ultimately we will have about 800 names, but since it's a living museum, we hope that this will continue to grow,” Williams said.
Although Williams did not have a grand opening, he says the number of visitors to the museum has been steady.
“We’ve had about 700 people in here already,” Williams said.
Guests arrive at the museum and are greeted by Williams himself. Once inside, he directs them to the Matthew Perry Media Center.
“When we get visitors in, we give them a little 10-minute preview of what is to come and what they are going to see,” Williams said.
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After the video, Williams then goes into tour guide mode, and gives a personal tour of the museum, before letting guests roam on their own and experience the exhibits.
Williams noted there is a minimal amount of copy and information that accompanies the exhibits to give viewers their own experience.
One exhibit, in particular, is filled with several artifacts about Williams himself.
The artifacts include his first camera, which he says was purchased for $2.50 from Sears Roebuck, the 16mm Bell and Howell camera he photographed Martin Luther King Jr. with, and his many awards including the Order of the Palmetto.
Williams plans to continue adding artifacts and photos.
“It appears that I will have much, much more because I’m just continuing to establish the exhibits and build upon what I have here,” Williams said.
Williams is working with other architects to convert the closet space in the former home to places for interactive displays.
One closet will feature an event that occurred in Elloree.
“We’re creating a picture of a lady in Elloree who had a cross burned in her front yard. Her son talked sassy to a white lady. And we’re creating the outside of her house here where we’re looking through the window as she’s telling about the story of the Klan who burned the cross,” Williams said.
The display features a replica Ku Klux Klansman standing just outside of the woman’s window. When guests peer into the window, they see a picture of the woman crying and being consoled by a man.
For added effect, a light bulb with an orange-ish hue flickers in the background to simulate a burning fire.
Williams used his architectural skills to construct many of the exhibits himself.
“I’ve repurposed a lot of things,” Williams said. “This was a bed. This was the headboard of a bed, that was at the foot of the bed and this is one of the sides,” Williams said.
Williams also discussed plans for adding to the outside of the building, but any additions at this point are just icing on the cake.
“In South Carolina, I have the only museum in South Carolina that centralizes the civil rights movement,” Williams said.
Williams said the his museum was needed in the state so natives and others could have a place to acquire knowledge about our grandfathers and grandmothers who endured the civil rights movement in hopes to better the future for all.
“So much of my generation, they are deceased now and they aren’t able to tell the story. Trying to wait around on the city or county to do this has been nothing but a disappointment,” Williams said.
“So I just did it myself,” he said.
Williams noted that he funded the museum himself, jokingly saying he blew his life savings.
“I think that my investment in it was well worth the effort and that the fact that an obsession drove me to this point,” Williams said. “This is one man’s obsession,” Williams said.
“I feel very good that I was driven to the point where I did this,” he said.
“I feel I’ve made a contribution.”
For more information regarding the museum or to book a tour, visit cecilwilliams.com or call 803-531-1662.